Popular Science Monthly/Volume 43/June 1893/East Central African Customs II


Last in series




AN institution peculiar to Central Africa is the prophetess,[1] who combines with her prophetic functions the office of witch detective. As she is the most terrible character met with in village life, a detailed account of her office and method of procedure may be interesting. It is to the prophetess the gods or ancestral spirits make known their will. This they do by direct appearance, and in dreams or visions. The prophetess, who is frequently the chief's free wife, dreams her dreams and then gives forth oracles at intervals, according to the exigencies of the case. These are generally delivered in a kind of hysterical frenzy. When she sees the gods face to face, which always happens at the dead hour of night, she begins by raving and screaming. This she continues till the whole village is astir, and she herself utterly prostrated by her exertions. She then throws herself on the ground, and remains in a state of catalepsy for some time, while the villagers gather round her, awe-stricken, waiting for her revelations. At last she speaks, and her words are accepted without question as the oracles of God. Has she not seen the ancestors face to face? Has she not heard their voice sending a message to their children? Is she not their friend, to whom they have shown favor? Must not all hear the words of those who have gone before?

After these revelations, the prophetess may impose impossible tasks on men, and they will be attempted without question. She may order human sacrifices, and no one will deny her victims. Suppose she, for any reason, declares that a person must be offered in sacrifice to a mountain deity—for there are gods of the valleys and gods of the hills, deities of the rivers and of the forests—the victim is conducted to a spot indicated by her, and bound hand and foot to a tree. If during the first night he is killed by beasts of prey, the gods have accepted the sacrifice, and feast "on his fat," which is "as the smell of spices in their nostrils." Should the victim not be devoured, he is left to die of starvation, or is thrown into lake or river with a sinker attached. "The slave was not worthy of the god's acceptance. He is worth nothing to any one." Fowls and other animals killed in sacrifice are not burned; they are simply left near the "prayer tree," and when devoured during the night the sacrifice is accepted. Among the tribes farther south, animals sacrificed are cooked and eaten, with the exception of the sacred portions, which are burned with fire.

As a detective of wizards and witches, the prophetess is in constant demand. When traveling on official duty in this capacity, she goes accompanied by a strong guard, and when she orders a meeting of a clan or tribe, attendance is compulsory on pain of confessed guilt. When all are assembled, our friend, who is clad with a scanty loin-cloth of leopard skin, and literally covered from head to foot with rattles and fantasies, rushes about among the crowd. She shouts and rants and raves in the most frantic manner, after which, assuming a calm, judicial aspect, she goes from one to another, touching each person's hand. As she touches the hand of the bewitcher she starts back with a loud shriek, and yells: "This is he, the murderer; blood is in his hand!" I am not certain if the accused has a right to demand the mwai, but it appears this may be allowed. My impression is that the law does not require it, and that the prophetess's verdict is absolute and final. The condemned man is put to death, witchcraft being a capital crime in all parts of Africa. But the accuser is not content with simply discovering the culprit. She proves his guilt. This she does by "smelling out"—finding—the "horns" he used in the prosecution of the unlawful art. These are generally the horns of a small species of antelope, and which are par excellence "witch's horns." The prophetess "smells out" the horns by going along the bank of a stream, carrying a water vessel and an ordinary hoe. At intervals she lifts water from the stream, which she pours upon the ground, and then stoops to listen. She hears subterranean voices directing her to the wizard's hiding place, at which, when she arrives, she begins to dig with her hoe, muttering incantations the while, and there she finds the horns deposited near the stream to poison the water drunk by the person to be bewitched. As they are dug from the ground, should any one, not a magician, touch them, even accidentally, the result would be instant death.

Now, how does the detective find the horns? By what devil's art does she hit upon the spot where they are concealed? The explanation is very simple. Wherever she is employed she must spend a night in the village before commencing operations. She does not retire to rest like the other villagers, but wanders about the live-long night, listening to spirit voices. If she sees a poor wight outside his house after the usual hour for retiring, she brings that up against him next day as evidence of guilty intention, and that, either on his own account, or on account of his friend the wizard, he meant to steal away to dig up the horns. The dread of such dire consequences keeps the villagers within doors, leaving the sorceress the whole night to arrange for the tableau of the following day.

In addition to the horns, arms and pieces of human flesh may he dug up in suspicious places, and this is the carrion on which witches and wizards feed. Any one tasting a morsel of such food is himself thereby converted into a wizard. Witches and wizards have midnight feasts, so says the legend, at which they gorge themselves with human carrion. Hence it is that in many parts the dead are not buried till putrefaction sets in, and graves are watched a considerable period after interment. The detective may not be known as such to a wizard, and may pretend to follow the same art in order to gain his confidence. If, then, the wizard offers the detective human carrion, no further proof of guilt is needed. Whether such food is ever offered to these rogues it is difficult to say, as their word is accepted without question or inquiry.

Witches can. cause milk to flow down through a straw from the roof of a house,[2] and by this means rob their neighbors of the milk of their goats and cows. When I read of this superstition for the first time it reminded me of an incident, connected with a similar Celtic superstition, which happened in Sutherlandshire about twelve years ago. In that region a superstition still lingers that witches can "steal the feet" of cows by walking through the fields while the dew is on the grass, dragging a rope made of cow-hair after them. A Thurso mason, well acquainted with north country superstitions, was employed in the district at the time referred to, and got a quantity of new milk daily from a crofter's wife. At the beginning of August she sent to say she could no longer let him have new milk, as that went to the shooting lodge, but he could have milk from which the cream had been taken. The wily rogue sent her the following message: "Tell your mother I do not wish to be nasty, but I must have new milk, if not by fair means, then otherwise. I shall take it from the rafters of the house rather than want." Next morning the girl appeared with skimmed milk, thin and blue. Malcolm had meantime made his preparations. He had bored one of the roof couples, and fixed a bladder filled with milk in the thatch so as to empty its contents through the hole when required. He then carefully plugged the hole. When he saw the quality of the milk sent, he asked the girl into the house that she might see what happened there. He next took an auger and bored the plug away, when down came a stream of rich milk and cream. After that he had but to ask what he required. No one dared refuse his most extravagant demands. His reputation as a wizard spread far and near over the country side, and still lingers there among the superstitious.

Wizards visit their victims while asleep, and "instill" a powerful, poison, known only to themselves, into the ear.[3] For this there is no cure; the patient withers away, and dies "when all the flesh has melted off the bones." They bewitch fowls, cattle, crops, everything a man possesses. They make his wives barren, and himself incapable of begetting children. They put enmity between him and his friends. In one word, there is no evil but they practice, and a great deal of the legislation of the country is designed to put down this crime, and punish those who are found guilty of it.

In South Africa war resolves itself into a cattle hunt; in the lake region of East Central Africa it is largely a slave hunt. A dangerous neighbor or rival can be effectually curbed by carrying away a large number of his subjects and sending them to market. This resolves war largely into raiding by means of a sudden and unexpected descent. The elaborate preparation of the South would warn the whole country, and while the doctor was engaged "charming" the army, and distributing magic tokens to render the braves invulnerable, the enemy would have put "seven hills" between himself and the advance column. All the same, there is a close resemblance between the war usages of the South and what we find in Central Africa. There we find, especially among the Angoni, the Basuto habit of cutting out an enemy's heart and liver, and eating them on the spot. We also find the habit of mutilation, for the purpose of reducing the parts to ashes, to be stirred into a broth or gruel, which must be "lapped" up with the hand and thrown into the mouth, but not eaten as ordinary food is taken, to give the soldiers courage, perseverance, fortitude, strategy, patience, and wisdom. Should a brave leader retire to a mountain, and die there unconquered, his spirit becomes, according to Yao tradition, the guardian of the rain clouds that gather there, and to him offerings and prayers are presented at the great national gatherings for rain. Mantanga inhabits Mangohi, the mountain the Yao remember as their home, and to him they pray and sacrifice for rain. He is liberal to his children, and bestows great plenty. Chitowe, on the other hand, is surly, and is associated with drought, famine, and leanness. He sometimes appears as an emaciated child or a young woman. These, and many others, are the spirits of warriors who perished centuries before the white man came to bring a new and terrible implement of destruction, and to introduce strange customs and stranger gods to people whose ways have been uniform since before the Flood.

Death is largely caused by wizards. The very introduction of death into the world has a suspicious look of witchcraft about it; in any case, it was caused by a woman who taught two men to go to sleep. One day while they slumbered, she, more cruel than Jael, held the nostrils of one till his breath ceased and he died.[4] So it happens that "death and sleep are one word." When a man dies, if his death was caused by witchcraft, there is no safety for any one till the suspected person drinks the poison bowl. How such are discovered has been already indicated; the poor wretch who must drink the poison may be the man's most intimate friend, his nearest relative, or perhaps his wife. There are even occasions when a large quantity of mvai is prepared and numbers take it together. In this case wizards and witches are "cleaned out" wholesale. The practice is not uncommon on the Shire and the Zambesi.

Apart from the discovery of the culprit, the dead are mourned for by a persistent beating of drums by night and by day,[5] and also by a continued howling kept up by relatives and others, of whom many may be hired for the occasion. The louder the drumming, the greater the grief. Relatives shave their heads, and in the case of a chief this is done by all his tribesmen. At the grave offerings are made, and the same is continued for a varying period at the votive pot placed on the site of the deceased's house.

At times, in the case of persons of social importance, as generals in the army and councilors, mourning is prolonged for many days before sepulture takes place, and in that case the body is incased in bark and placed in a suitable position, with a hole dug in the floor underneath to receive the decomposed and putrefied matter which exudes from it. The body is ultimately buried in the house, which is razed, and the materials carried away, that the spot may be leveled and a votive pot placed there. A slave is frequently killed and put in the same grave with his deceased master, that the latter may not have "to go alone." Enemies killed in war are not buried.

When sepulture is to occur in the usual place, and according to the general custom of the country, the body is wrapped in a mat, usually the person's bed, and a curious custom observed by Yao and Wayisa, who perform this office, is washing their hands as a ceremonial act. This is quite distinct from the idea of uncleanness after handling a dead body, which requires bathing in running water before eating or associating with their fellowmen. After the ceremonial act of washing is performed, the body is carried to the grave suspended along its length to a bamboo pole. When the grave is dug, it is carefully lined with palisades and green branches. At either end a forked stick is driven securely into the ground at the bottom of the grave, and the body suspended to the bamboo pole is placed in position, the ends of the bamboo resting on the forked sticks, and preventing its touching the ground. A canopy of boughs is then placed over it to prevent the earth falling down on the body, and the grave is filled in as is usual. A slave may be killed to accompany the deceased, but not necessarily. The house occupied by him is burned, and a votive pot placed on its site. Similar pots are also placed on the grave. When the chief of a tribe dies, he is buried in his house, which is not taken down nor burned, and in this case the votive pot is placed outside the door, under the veranda. The personal articles of the deceased—pipes, broken spear, walking-sticks, ornaments, badges of office, charms, and wallet—are placed in the grave, and this seems to be common among all, or almost all, African tribes. When mourning for the dead is concluded, which is after a varying period, there are feasting, drinking, revelry, and a second shaving, after which the dead is forgotten, or at all events seldom or never mentioned except as an ancestor to be worshiped, and then not by name, but by relation—"my father," "my brother," "my chief," "my chief's son," etc.

A man worships the spirits of his own ancestors; a village, those of its departed heads; a tribe, those of its chiefs. The names of great warriors are kept long in remembrance, and we meet with many such whose history, exploits, and country are quite lost, but whose memory tradition preserves as great spirits who are high in rank above ordinary ancestral gods, and on whose will depends the destiny of peoples and the conditions of life as regards plenty or scarcity. This is common to almost all Bantu tribes. Worship takes the form of prayer, offering, and sacrifice. Reference has been made to the manner of human sacrifice, and its frequency among certain tribes is appalling. When the gods are offended, men must die; when hungry, cattle or fowls serve their turn; and when only to be propitiated, as in view of a favor desired, flour or corn is acceptable to them. At great national gatherings—as for rain—the magician, in the priestly character, conducts the sacrifice and the prayers, as also in cases of disaster and national mourning. In connection with rain-making, the chief supplicates his own special god or guardian ancestor. A dance is held in his honor, and the chief throws up water to indicate that he prostrates himself and his people at the spirit's feet, who has the giving or withholding of that for which they pant and die. At times Mpambe (lightning), in the form of a deity of the clouds, is invoked for rain by Yao and Shirwa tribes, but Mullunga, the great spirit—or more properly great ancestor—is the deity to whom men look for help in times of distress and drought. This worship of Mulunga leads to a kind of tribal pantheism in the lake region, for, after all, is not the Earth the mother of us all, Mulunga himself included? In the more private devotions of the people of the Nyassa region Mulunga does not appear, but a man may not only pray and sacrifice to his own ancestors, but also to the old inhabitants who occupied the country before his forefathers took possession of it. The people are gone, all dead, but their spirits live, and dwell in the old place, and see all that goes on in which they take an interest. There do not seem to be family and tribal distinctions as such among spirits; in any case, they do not fight about territory as men do. No Milton has yet appeared in Central Africa to set the spirits by the ears.

The dead, however, may reappear in the form of animals, but only for pure mischief.[6] Widows are often held in bondage and terror by their lords returning in the guise of a serpent. This brute will enter the house, hide in the thatch, and look at its victim from between the rafters. It will coil itself by the fire and steal into the beds; it will glide over articles of food and explore the interior of cooking utensils. For this persistent persecution there is but one remedy, and that is to kill the serpent, when there is nothing left but "pure spirit," which can not appear in material form any more.

A Yao spirit appearing in material form is different from a spirit's messenger, which also appears in animal guise. The latter may be a bird, a form which a spirit can not assume, but which can be sent as a messenger, to make known the spirit's will, somewhat after the manner of those sacred chickens which the stout old Roman threw over the side when they refused to eat. The African, too, can deal somewhat summarily with bird messages when his interests and inclination lie in that way, but this implies a degree of courage which is phenomenal.

Among the Angoni and the people dwelling on the western side of Lake Nyassa there is a common belief that demons hover about the dying and dead before burial, to snatch away their souls to join their own evil order. By the beating of drums and firing of guns such evil spirits are driven away, but a more certain method of avoiding their machinations is to have a mock funeral, and so mislead and confound them. When it is determined to have such a funeral, an artificial body is manufactured of any convenient substance, and treated exactly as is done with the bodies of the dead. This lay figure is carried a considerable distance to a grave, followed by a great crowd, weeping and wailing as if their hearts would break. Drums are beaten, guns fired, and every species of noise made. Meantime the real corpse is interred near the dwelling as quietly and stealthily as possible. The evil spirits are effectually deceived; when the mourners retire, there is nothing in the mock grave but a bundle of rushes, while the true grave they do not know and can not find. Traces of this still linger in the South.

As the African must account for the origin of death, so, too, he has a theory regarding the first appearance of man on the earth. Both he and all other animals came out of a hole in the ground, after which Mulunga—the great ancestor—closed up the opening. The place is now desert, no man dwells there, and the spot is Known to none. The gods refuse to reveal it. Whether this is that it may not be opened, and other creatures be allowed to escape from it, their philosophy does not very clearly explain, but what is very certain is, that monkeys were men at the time of their exit from the earth,[7] but having quarreled with their friends, went to "dwell in the bush." To vex and harass those whom they left, they began to pick the seed from the ground after it was sown, and this habit having grown to be hereditary, monkeys can not grow corn, as they "could not leave their own seed in the ground," which is perhaps as good a definition of the difference between men and monkeys as any given by scientists.

Reference to monkeys reminds one of that wonderful procession seen by the pasha, where each carried a torch to light him in his depredations among the corn-fields—a story which one man explains by referring it to Emin's defective eyesight, another to a possibility of monkeys being able to produce fire by friction. Without giving any opinion regarding the accuracy of the observer, a statement made to me by a South African native, a Pondonusi, may throw as much light upon it as all our science. At the time I paid little attention to it, and indeed it passed quite from my mind till I came across the pasha's story in Mr. Stanley's book. It was, so far as I can recollect, in the following words—the connection in which it was told is of no importance: "The master is surprised. There are monkeys in the mountains" (the gorges of the Drakensberg) "that go to the fires men leave in the bush, and carry away burning sticks; they even go up the trees with them, and then throw them down. I have not seen it myself, but I have heard say that when women leave a fire near the edge of the bush, they come out to the grass openly with burning pieces of wood, and play with them—some say they carry them back to the fire to make them burn better." If this is a true and sober version of what is not uncommon, a little less science and a little more ordinary intercourse might have saved the eminent if erratic German a good deal of idle speculation. One can quite fancy monkeys playing with fire-brands found near the edge of the forest, carrying them off in their march to the corn-fields, to cast them aside when the work of depredation began.

If man's origin can be satisfactorily accounted for, his destiny is shrouded in impenetrable gloom. All spirits live, nor can they be killed; but how employed or what country they inhabit is known to no one. It is true a man's ancestors watch over his life, and the chief's ancestors guard the honor of the tribe, but beyond this all is uncertainty and doubt.[8] A man's spirit is not at his grave, though it may be met there; it is not at his old home, but still it sees the offerings placed in the votive pot. It does not inhabit his son's house, though he can not cut his nails or trim his hair without his father's eye being upon him; and should he fail to bury the clippings of his nails or to burn the produce of the barber's shears, he may expect to be reminded of it in the most unpleasant manner. Nor is it a man's own actions alone that come under the cognizance and censorship of his father's ghost. Should his wife, while he is on a journey, anoint herself with the oil or fat in daily use, she will not only suffer herself, but bring calamity upon her husband; should she dream during his absence, she must offer a private gift for herself and the absent one. So far the wishes of spirits are known, but how they employ themselves in the spirit land, and what are the mutual relations between them, has never been told. A chief remains such in virtue of his office, but as to the relations between rival chiefs and old enemies, "the people who are here do not know; it never was known, for they never told."

Turning from speculations regarding creation, life, and death to the daily concerns of this world, we meet with a number of very curious minor customs and institutions among the Yao and allied tribes. One of these is that of surety, or what we might call Godparent. Every girl has a surety, and when her hand is sought in marriage it is this official who is approached, and not her parents. He makes the necessary arrangements, and sees what provision is to be made for her and her children, should she have any; and also, in the event of her being sent away without just cause, how she is to be supported and cared for. When a free wife—for this institution applies only to free women—is dismissed, she returns to her surety, and he redresses her wrongs, and makes such adjustments as the circumstances admit of.

In the ordinary conduct of affairs, domestic and public, women have no voice; everything is regulated by the men, who may be said to sit perpetually in council. A Yao woman, asked if the child she is carrying is a boy or girl, frequently replies, "My child is of the sex that does not speak." The position of woman is practically that of a chattel. Women kneel when addressing men, and go off the public path into the grass or bush when they meet any of the opposite sex as a sign of subordination and subjection. Young girls do not take milk; if they did it would make them barren. Women, especially Makololo, wear a lip-ring the size of a small table napkin-ring in the lip, not suspended, as earrings are, but inserted into the lip as the "eyes" through which "reef points" pass are inserted between the canvas of the sail and its "bolt-rope." It causes the lip to project an inch and a half in front of its natural position, and at right angles to the teeth and gums. A small brass or lead ornament is suspended from the side of the nose, which is pierced for the purpose as the lobe of the ear is for earrings. Some of the front teeth are knocked out as a beauty mark, and the arms, cheeks, breast, and shoulders are tattooed with strange and fantastic devices. Necklets of teeth, shells, or bits of wood are common, and brass wire is in great demand for bracelets and anklets. The dress consists of a loin-cloth of skin, cotton, or bark. The latter is made by stripping a piece of bark from a tree, and then beating it with an ebony hammer till soft and pliant. It is easily torn, and even when treated with the greatest care does not last long. On the Shire and round Lake Nyassa the people have hardly any stock except fowls and a few goats, and are thus precluded from having the comfortable sheepskin garments so common among the Kaffirs. Domestic animals are precious in Central Africa, so when chickens are hatched the abandoned egg-shells are collected and hung up in the house to protect the brood from hawks and accidents of all kinds.

The principal industries among the tribes whose customs I am considering consist of pottery and working in iron.[9] They manufacture clay pots of beautiful design, and burn them with considerable skill. There is a tradition lingering in odd corners that once upon a time their ancestors used hollow stones as pots before the art of pottery was discovered. If this is true—of which there is no adequate proof, however—it effectually disposes of Don Santos's idea that the East Central African had gradually degenerated from a higher civilization, and points rather to a record of progress. And there seems to be beyond question steady, if slow, progress in their skill in working metal and fashioning implements of war and husbandry. There is no question that within a comparatively recent period they tilled the ground with wooden implements, for the memory of it lives in universal tradition among them. At no very remote date a Tubal-Cain appeared, and since his day the iron-headed hoe has found its way into the remotest hamlet, and the national ingenuity has found exercise in fashioning and ornamenting weapons of war. The improvements made in the manufacture of implements of husbandry and tools for the craftsman are insignificant compared with the advance in the manufacture of spear and battle-axe. The iron they smelt from its native ore by a primitive process of blast furnace, and then work and temper it much as was done by our country smiths two or three hundred years ago. I have seen spears of African manufacture, made by Baralong smiths, tempered so finely that it required a good Sheffield blade to turn their edge. This is, however, exceptional, and the vast majority of articles made are soft, and the iron coarse in texture when broken. In woodwork their progress has been slower, and beyond polishing spear-handles and the manufacture of musical instruments, pillows—a regular article of commerce—pipes, walking-sticks, and mallets, not much is done, the manufacture of canoes, their greatest triumph, being always excepted.—Journal of the Anthropological Institute.


  1. Walolo triVje and Lake Shirwa district generally.
  2. This is pretty general in East Central and South Africa.
  3. Manganga, Angoni, Yao, Walolo.
  4. Yao tradition, told also by Wayisa.
  5. Macdonald, Description of Funeral and Mourning Customs in Nyassa Regions. Mock funerals are most common among the Angoni.
  6. Angoni, Manganga, Waomba, Anyasa, etc.
  7. This tradition Mr. Macdonald found common in the Shirwa and Nyassa regions.
  8. The following customs are gleaned from notes and references by missionaries in the Nyassa and Tanganyika Lake regions, no particular tribes being named. The customs seem common.
  9. The Angoni own a tribe of inner Africa which they have reduced to the position of domestic slaves. They are the best smiths in the lake region. Whence they came I do not know, but they were not natives of that region originally.